EPA revision of Clean Water Rule will clarify regulations for landowners

Agriculture, if not properly managed, can contaminate water and cause harm to the land and wildlife. Farmers and ranchers work to preserve water quality, practice conservation techniques and abide by environmental water regulations and rules.

One Environmental Protection Agency regulation is the Waters of the United States (WOTUS), also known as the Clean Water Rule. Implemented in 2015, this regulation defines what bodies of water (rivers, streams, watersheds, etc.) fall under federal jurisdiction. Darrick Steen, environmental director for the Missouri Corn Growers Association, explained that the intentions of WOTUS are good. The regulation was meant to protect America’s waterways, but instead restricted agriculturalists.

The EPA definition of “Waters of the United States” was so murky, farmers and ranchers often didn’t know if they had the right to use certain water sources. The rule was never put into effect, as litigation for revision was immediately set in motion. In February of 2017, President Trump issued an executive order directing the EPA and the Department of the Army to review and rescind or revise the 2015 Rule.

Matthew Morgan, diversified crop and livestock producer, lives in Lamar, Missouri, on his fourth-generation farm.

“It [WOTUS rule] made us think about what would happen if it were to go in place,” Morgan said. “We irrigate with center pivot, out of private man-made lakes. That kind of water source wouldn’t be under EPA jurisdiction. However, we have many neighbors that irrigate out of deep wells taking water from the ground. It would hurt their operation and change how they manage irrigation.”

In the midst of the confusion, several lawsuits were brought forth against farmers, attacking their livelihoods and agriculture practices based on what some saw as muddy, confusing verbiage of the 2015 regulation. The revision of the 2015 WOTUS should clarify its definitions.

“From an agricultural standpoint, we believe EPA’s proposed 2019 revised WOTUS rule is a large improvement over EPA’s previous 2015 WOTUS rule,” Steen said. “It is more straightforwardly written, it establishes categorical ‘bright lines’ that provide clarity and predictability to farmers, and it also more clearly defines what is not a WOTUS. This includes clear exclusions for ditches, ephemeral features, groundwater, prior converted cropland, and isolated wetlands.”

Revising the WOTUS regulation was a two-step process. Step one included repealing the 2015 Clean Water Rule. This occurred on Oct.  22, 2019. Regulations nationwide as informed by agency guidance documents and consistent with Supreme Court decisions will become effective on Dec. 23, 2019.

Step two is revising the text for the rule. The agencies opened a 60-day public comment period, which closed on April 15, 2019. More than 6,000 recommendations were submitted suggesting written pre-proposal ideas. After careful analysis and drafting, the agencies balance the input given by the public, policy and stakeholders.

Robert Hunt, the planning coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), explains that the DNR strives to be a bridge connecting agriculturists with a clear understanding of the law. Abiding by the guidelines aids the fight in securing a sustainable future for all generations.

“Water is a critical resource for human and environmental health and economic growth,” Hunt said. “It is very important that agencies like the Department of Natural Resources help landowners and businesses to comply with federal water-protection regulations to ensure clean water into the future.”

Agriculturists are not oblivious to the value of being mindful towards protecting America’s water. As an industry, there are major advancements being made to provide safe food through sustainable practices that benefit the environment. According to the EPA’s website, there are several ways farmers are fighting back against water pollution. Applying fertilizers in the proper amount, at the right time of year, and with the right method can significantly reduce the potential for pollution. This takes away the harmful runoff getting into local water basins. With precision agriculture improving every day, farmers can pinpoint the exact locations for fertilizer application. Cover crops also aid in reducing harmful run off. These added crops soak up extra nutrients ensuring they doesn’t go into watersheds. Cover crops also allow farmers to have added pasture in the late fall and early spring -adding organic matter along the way.

“The fact is, Missouri farmers are continuously investing and voluntarily their time, energy and their own dollars to reduce nutrient runoff, to improve soil health and to preserve natural resources on their land,” Steen said.

Steen said Missouri farmers have already preserved an estimated 182 million tons of soil, and their conservation practices have impacted over 5 million acres or more of Missouri farmland.